ISSN: 1089-747X
Copyright © 1995–2012 by the Society for Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 6, no. 2:

A Woman Scorn’d: Responses to the Dido Myth. Edited by Michael Burden. London: Faber and Faber, 1998. [xiii, 290 pp. ISBN 0-571-17699-2 12.99, $21 (paper bound).]

Reviewed by Margaret Laurie*

1. The Context

2. The Essays

3. Dido in Opera

4. Conclusion


1. The Context

1.1 This book publishes the papers of a conference which examined the classical story of Dido and some of the ways in which it has been used since in literature, art and music.

1.2 In the original myth (which may well have historical roots), Dido (or Elissa) escaped from Tyre after her husband was murdered by his brother and founded the city of Carthage on the African coast. Having vowed to be faithful to her late husband, she committed suicide rather than being forced into marriage with the local chieftain, Iarbas. Virgil completely subverted this story: although his Dido rejects Iarbas, she succumbs to Aeneas, who had been driven to her shores by a storm after his escape from Troy. She commits suicide when he deserts her to sail to Italy and establish the city of Rome.

2. The Essays

2.1 In the first of the ten chapters of the book, Roger Savage, after commenting upon the two versions of the story, surveys references to the Virgilian version made by Shakespeare and others, then gives a brief résumé of adaptations of it in four operas: Cavalli’s La Didone (1641), Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1680s), Sarro’s Didone abbandonata (1724) and Berlioz’s Les Troyens (1863). The first two of these are discussed in greater detail later in the book.

2.2 Various aspects of Virgil’s handling of the story are discussed in the next four chapters. Nuttall demonstrates how Virgil’s treatment of Dido is more sympathetic to her than might be expected given that the Carthaginians were traditional enemies of Rome and that in Virgil’s version she is basically a siren distracting Aeneas from his destiny. James Davidson explains how when Virgil was writing an attempt was being made to establish a Roman colony on the site of Carthage, which had been razed at the end of the Punic Wars over a hundred years previously, and that Virgil’s ambivalent attitude to Dido may, at least partly, reflect a need to encourage this.

2.3 The last section of the book is of more immediate interest to musicologists, for it looks at how the Dido story was handled in art, on the Renaissance stage, and by seventeenth-century English translators of Virgil. We are shown how both versions of the story were well known to Renaissance literati; thus Dido could symbolize either the faithful spouse or the seducer of a hero from his appointed course depending on which version was in mind. Diane Purkiss and Wendy Heller note that in both Elizabethan England and early seventeenth-century Venice the main topics associated with Dido were the vulnerability of women rulers and questions of women’s chastity. Purkiss demonstrates how in William Gager’s Latin play, Dido (1583), commissioned by the Earl of Leicester, elements of both were combined to praise Queen Elizabeth but warn against any possible foreign marriage, equating the Queen’s chastity with stable government, while, in contrast, Marlowe’s and Nashe’s saucy Dido, Queen of Carthage, in which the Virgilian Dido is portrayed as an arrant flirt, appears to be expressing criticism of the monarch.

3. Dido in Opera

3.1 Wendy Heller notes that while some Venetian representations of the Dido story also touch on political concerns, Cavalli’s La Didone (1641), to which her perceptive study is mainly devoted, appears to focus on sexual morality. The librettist, Busenello, combines the chaste widow and the illicit lover aspects of the Dido myth by setting the first act in Troy and contrasting the virtuous Trojan women, Cassandra and Hecuba, with the more venial Dido of the remaining two acts. The initial portrayal of Dido as staunchly loyal to her murdered husband is gradually undermined by secondary characters who satirize many of her gestures, and her protestations of chastity are bit by bit exposed as hypocritical. Although when Aeneas deserts her she responds with anger and reproaches, her lament after his departure is devoted mainly to blaming herself for yielding to him. Finally Busenello provides the obligatory happy ending by having her marry Iarba after all. Heller perceptively demonstrates how Cavalli heightens the emotional twists of the libretto, underlining the main thrust of it by making the laments of the Trojan women in Act I more deeply expressive than that of Dido in Act III.

3.2 Michael Burden then re-examines Tate’s characterization in the libretto for Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. His attempt to view the characters purely in terms of what is actually in the libretto is commendable though perhaps ultimately misguided. I find it a bit illogical to argue that the audience (especially if it was originally a court audience) would have picked up the significance of the changes which Tate made to the libretto—most of which Michael Burden discusses—yet would not have read into the story elements of Virgil’s version which the very pared-down libretto simply omits. That they would indeed have done so is the central point of Andrew Pinnock’s somewhat light-hearted, but cogent, discussion of seventeenth-century English translations and travesties of the relevant sections of Virgil’s epic in the final chapter of this book. The various allusions in the libretto to Aeneas’ past and destined future and the episodic nature of the plot suggest that Tate did in fact rely on the audience’s knowledge of Virgil to fill in the gaps. For instance, it is possible, as Michael Burden contends, that Tate intended Dido to be seen as a virgin queen, but, as he admits, her mental conflict is much more explicable in terms of her vow to her dead husband. Moreover, by developing Roger Savage’s idea that the Sorceress is Dido’s self-destructive alter ego and declaring that the Witches’ scenes are “Dido’s nightmare scenario played out by the courtiers,” Michael Burden reads into the plot an anachronistic psychological interpretation which, I feel, would have been far less likely to occur to seventeenth-century listeners than details of Virgil’s familiar epic.

3.3 This study seeks to lay virtually the whole blame for the tragedy on Dido, stating that it occurred because she did not trust her love for Aeneas and allowed “the effects of suspicion to corrode her sanity,” with the implication that if she had trusted Aeneas all would have been well. However, the disaster occurs precisely because she does trust Aeneas, for it is her giving way to his advances against her better judgment that goads the Sorceress into intervening to prevent a stable relationship developing between them. I am not convinced by the attempt to exonerate Aeneas. Since he, far better than Dido, knew that he was destined to go to Italy he should never have pressed his suit on her in the first place. If his boastful “bending spear” remarks in the Grove Scene do symbolically announce the consummation of their love, as both Michael Burden and Andrew Pinnock plausibly assert, they surely imply—grossly insulting and politically unwise as they are—that he is staking a permanent claim to her, yet almost immediately he accepts without protest the false Mercury’s command to leave. He attempts to do so without telling Dido and, when she angrily confronts him, changes his mind yet again and offers to stay. Her rejection of this offer is not mere churlish foolishness, as Michael Burden suggests, but surely springs from understandable disillusionment: a bitter realization that Aeneas is not the strong hero of her imagination but weak and vacillating and thus indeed not to be trusted. It is true that, considered rationally, neither Tate’s (nor Virgil’s) Dido need have committed suicide, but this was expected of classical women who had been seduced or raped. I would agree that to some extent Dido brings the tragedy upon herself, but I think that Michael Burden has carried the denigration of her character too far. Moreover his interpretation totally ignores the dignity with which Purcell’s music invests her. His fresh examination of the work, however, contains some illuminating points and provides stimulus to further thought.

4. Conclusion

4.1 The Virgil section of this book sits a little uneasily with the rest and seems directed at somewhat different group of readers. Inevitably there is a certain amount of repetition, especially in the recounting of the two versions of the story. Nonetheless this is an interesting study of artistic reactions to this potent myth throughout the centuries since its conception.


* Margaret Laurie has recently retired from the post of Music Librarian at Reading University, Great Britain. She is Chairwoman of the Purcell Society Committee and has edited Purcell’s secular solo songs and most of his operas, including Dido and Aeneas, for the Purcell Society Edition.
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Table of Contents

I. Dido Dies Again
     1. Dido Dies Again, by Robert Savage

II. Interpretations
     1. An Invitation to the Theatre of Carthage, by Mark Pobjoy

     2. Domesticating Dido: History and Historicity, by James Davidson

     3. Inconsistent Dido, by A.D. Nuttall

     4. Leaving Dido: The Appearance(s) of Mercury and the Motivations of Aeneas, by Denis Feeney

III. Reinterpretations: Dido on the Stage (and Elsewhere)
     1. “Ut Poesis Pictura”?: Dido and the Artists, by Jennifer Montagu

     2. The Queen on Stage: Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage and the Representations of Elizabeth I, by Diane Purkiss

     3. “O Castità Bugiarda”: Cavalli’s Didone and the Question of Chastity, by Wendy Beth Heller

     4. “Great Minds Against Themselves Conspire”: Purcell’s Dido as a Conspiracy Theorist, by Michael Burden

     5. Book IV in Plain Brown Wrappers: Translations and Travesties of Dido, by Andrew Pinnock

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